1917-1979

Robert Burns Woodward

Location: Fifth Floor, Elevator area, East Wall, Sequence 2

Source: John D. Roberts

Sponsor: Chung-yin Lai
Harold Hart


Though synthesis and structure determination were the main focus of Woodward's research, he also made other major contributions. The Woodward Rules, published when he was only 23, correlate structures of α,β-unsaturated ketones with their ultraviolet absorption spectra. His deduction of the ferrocene structure opened a new area of organometallic chemistry. He proposed correct biogenetic schemes for the conversion of squalene to cholesterol, and for the biosynthesis of indole alkaloids and macrolides. Finally, as a consequence of certain unusual stereochemical results encountered during the vitamin B12 synthesis, he collaborated with Roald Hoffmann to develop the theory for conservation of orbital symmetry in chemical reactions, a discovery for which he undoubtedly would have shared a second Nobel had there not been the injunction against posthumous awards.

Besides his unfailing personal courtesy and wry sense of humor, Robert Burns Woodward's most characteristic attributes were precision in style, evident in all he said, wrote or did. Those who heard him lecture relished his meticulous choice of words, his dramatic sense of timing, and his seemingly leisurely and deliberate writing of structural formulae and reaction schemes. Woodward had a passion for the color blue; note the suit, tie, chair, wall and drapes; he was also a chain smoker (note the tip of his forefinger). (Continued on first portrait.)